OLR Research Report

April 2, 1999





By: Saul Spigel, Chief Analyst

You asked about the relationship between child abuse and poverty, nationally and in Connecticut. You also wanted to know if any studies show whether the federal earned income tax credit reduces the incidence of child abuse or neglect.


Nationally, children living in poverty are significantly more likely to suffer from abuse or neglect than children who do not, according to a federal report, the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. The Department of Children and Families does not have data that either confirm or contradict this finding for Connecticut. We could find no studies that show a correlation between abuse incidence and the earned income tax credit (EITC), although recent research seems to suggest that the EITC is effective among some groups for lifting children out of poverty.


The 1996 Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, conducted on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services in response to a congressional mandate, found that, compared to children whose families earned $30,000 a year or more, children in families with annual incomes below $15,000 a year were:

● 22 times more likely to experience some form of maltreatment

● 13 times more likely to be harmed by abuse

● 44 times more likely to be neglected

● 15 times more likely to be a victim of physical abuse

● 17 times more likely to be sexually abused

● 13 times more likely to be emotionally abused

● 40 times more likely to experience physical neglect

● 29 times more likely to be emotionally neglected

● 55 times more likely to be educationally neglected

● 60 times more likely to die from maltreatment

● 22 times more likely to be seriously injured by maltreatment

● 18 times more likely to moderately injured by abuse or neglect

Other observers confirm this correlation, although they are not unanimous. Diane English, chief of the Washington (state) Office of Child Research, writes, “Although child abuse and neglect occur in families of all income brackets, cases of child maltreatment are drawn disproportionately from lower-income families.” But she cites other research indicating that sexual and emotional abuse, specifically, are not closely related to socioeconomic status (English, “The Extent and Consequences of Child Maltreatment,” in “Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect,” The Future of Children, spring 1998.)

Recently, a 1996 study of 147 adults who reported abusing and neglecting their children found that low socioeconomic status was a risk factor for neglecting, but not abusing, children (Chaffin, “Onset of Physical Abuse and Neglect,” Child Abuse and Neglect, March 1996).

And a 1996 study from Missouri found neglect was most powerfully associated with neighborhood poverty and sexual abuse the least associated with poverty. Neglect was 45 times more likely in high poverty than low poverty areas, while sexual abuse occurred just four times more often. Physical abuse was also highly related to poverty, occurring nearly 19 times more often in poor neighborhoods than in wealthier ones (Drake and Pandley, “Understanding the Relationship Between Neighborhood Poverty and Specific Types of Childhood Maltreatment,” Child Abuse and Neglect, November 1996, p. 1003-18).

The relationship between abuse and poverty, English writes, is a complex one.

No one fully understands the links between poverty and maltreatment. The stress and frustrations of living in poverty may combine with attitudes toward the use of corporal punishment to increase the risk of physical violence. For instance, researchers have found that unemployment can lead to family stress and to child abuse. When a family lacks the basic resources needed to provide for a child, neglect is likely, although researchers suggest that dynamics over and above poverty (such as disorganization and social isolation) differentiate neglecting families from others. Indeed, most poor people do not mistreat their children. The effects of poverty appear to interact with other risk factors such as unrealistic expectations, depression, isolation, substance abuse, and domestic violence to increase the likelihood of maltreatment. (English, p. 46).


We found no research linking families' receipt of the EITC with lower rates of child abuse or neglect. But at least one recent report touts the EITC as the single program removing the largest number of children from poverty. The EITC, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP, a liberal think tank) lifted 4.6 million people, including 2.4 million children, from poverty in 1996.

The EITC was particularly effective in inducing single parents, (who are, according to the 3rd National Incidence Study, much more likely to abuse their children) to go to work. This was especially true among single mothers.

Since the EITC is available only to working families, its effects on children in those families are especially strong, the CPPB found. Among working families, the EITC has a larger effect than any other program or category of programs both in reducing the number of poor children and in reducing the severity of poverty among those who remain poor.

But the EITC has less of an effect on children in extreme poverty. Cash assistance and food and housing programs have a larger impact in diminishing the severity of poverty among these children, many of whose families are so poor that these forms of aid render them less poor rather than lifting them above the poverty line.

The EITC's effects are largest in the South, the region in which wages tend to be lowest and the proportion of working families with poverty-level incomes is highest. Nearly half of all children in the South who were lifted out of poverty by government benefit programs were raised from poverty by the EITC. (A copy of the CPPB report, New Research Findings on the Effects of the Earned Income Tax Credit, is attached.).